Agony And XTC

July 2000

After one of the nastiest pieces of band/record company strife in living memory, Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding - the new, slimmed down XTC - are back with the second disc of their freedom years, a joyously guitar-crammed platter that cements their place up among our finest-ever pop visionaries. . .

‘What? You've never heard of Tunnocks?’ Andy Partridge is simply flabbergasted. ‘Christ! It's like not ever having heard of The Beatles.’ Shaken, he takes a restorative cup of coffee. ‘They're biscuits,’ he explains, recovering. ‘Caramel wafers with a red and gold striped pack. They're made up north and they're heavenly. During recording we had at least one a day apiece. Once you've tried them, you won't want to go elsewhere. Believe me: after Tunnocks, all other biscuits turn into Oasis. . .’

Welcome to XTC's world headquarters - which isn't on the camera-clicking tourist charabanc route, but certainly should be (‘. . . and on the left, ladies and gentlemen, the shed affair by the side of the fine Victorian-era villa hides the trembling heart of true English pop music. Now, if you direct your gaze over to your right, you'll see an actual English sheep. . .’). XTC central, you see, is actually bassist Colin Moulding's garage - a modestly-sized outbuilding nestling close by his house in the hollow of a misty green Wiltshire hill.

Luckily, instead of the bags of manure and past-it gardening implements you'd have found here last year, it now contains plenty of fresh wood panelling, nice orange-painted walls and a compact array of modern beat-group recording hardware. It's all delightfully civilised: an eccentric, brilliant ‘We make very light music. It doesn't take itself too seriously. We're not like Radiohead. We're a little more breezy about the whole business’ Colin Moulding duo welcoming the attentions of the gentlemen of the press. Moulding, a picture of casual elegance and friendly reticence, offers chicken sandwiches. The more extrovert Andy Partridge, floppy velvet cap cheerfully askew, strums a £20 classical guitar and free-associates like a bastard.

For legions of XTC fans the world over, this is hallowed ground. This - thrills! - is where the pair crafted the bulk of Wasp Star (Apple Venus Volume 2), a delectable array of songs laid down with a simplicity, verve and renewed dedication to the joyous tones of the electric guitar that will remind XTC fans of their most-dusted LPs: Black Sea, Big Express, Skylarking, Apples And Lemons [sic]. It's pop music that's heartfelt, beautifully crafted and stunningly arranged. It's also pop music borne out of a period of considerable strife.

In 1993, worn to the point of exhaustion battling one of the most notorious and unrecoupable record contracts of the last 30 years, XTC went on strike. No records, no anything: just silence. After two unproductive years, Virgin finally agreed to let the trio go. The band signed to small labels Cooking Vinyl in the UK and TVT in the States and set about making sense of a considerable backlog of songs.

The next bit is complicated. First, the plan was for a double album. With cash from Japanese label Pony Canyon the band hired favourite producer and orchestra expert Haydn Bendall, blew two months getting nowhere at Squeezeperson Chris Difford's studio, then moved to Chipping Norton - the famous Manor of Richard Branson and Tubular Bells fame (some material from this period would eventually end up on both albums). Then the money ran out. More dosh arrived via the TVT deal, but then Bendall was forced away to fulfil other commitments. XTC were stuck with one quarter of a double album, and the pennies were trickling away.

It was Colin Moulding who had the brainwave. Turfing some junk out of his front room, the band draped cables across the hallway and installed a desk, some mics and a little amplifier; Nick Davies, the man who'd mixed 1992's Nonsuch, assumed the producers' creased forehead; and XTC did the rest of the album, now trimmed to a single volume, right there, Hollywood-style, save for one hectic day herding an orchestra into Abbey Road.

As it turned out, Apple Venus (Vol 1) was a chamber-pop triumph: delicate, sumptuous, an astonishing record. But there had been casualties - and the most serious was the loss of long-serving guitarist Dave Gregory. Frustrated at his increasingly keyboard-playing role, stressed concerning the band's new orchestral direction, Gregory fell out heavily with the hugely talented but famously difficult Andy Partridge, departed to continue his successful session career and hasn't spoken to XTC's lead songwriter since.

The obvious irony is that had Dave Gregory managed to stick it, the long awaited second half of the original double LP, Wasp Star (Apple Venus Vol 2) - rockier, stripped down, crammed with guitars - would have been right up his street. This album was assembled not in Moulding's parlour but in the all-new garden studio. And, just as you would be, Partridge and Moulding are rather proud.

‘We could have done this ages ago, but we always had people like Virgin going “don't blow it on your own studio! We've heard too many horror stories about that,”’ mourns Partridge. ‘But it actually saves us about a thousand pounds a day. The whole cost was £30,000, say £40,000 with ‘Bands are gangs with guitars instead of knives. You're going out to drink the world dry, shag all the girls and deafen their dads. Then you grow up a bit and go, hang on. . .’ Andy Partridge equipment, and that's just one month's studio time in Chipping Norton - or half a month in Abbey Road. But we're very conscious of not sitting around drinking tea all day long instead of recording just 'cos we've got out own studio - and we didn't have Nick booked forever. So we worked from 10.30 to 6 or 7 at night. Gentlemen's hours.’

But isn't it remarkable that the room sounds so good, seeing that rather than acoustic loveliness the space was, strictly speaking, designed for two Ford Escorts?

‘Escorts?’ complains Moulding, miffed. ‘Volvos, please.’

‘I think Escorts is much more like it,’ cackles Partridge unkindly. ‘But, yes, we've been jammy. The wooden floor is much less pingy than a concrete one would be - it's fabulous for acoustic guitar and the drums are the best we've had on a record. Mind, some of that is down to the Radar hard disk recorder, which is lovely - it sounds like a tape machine, quite warm and not at all fizzy or harsh. Plus you can move everything around, and it's the first time we've had that.’

Andy Partridge clutches Dennis Fano guitar
Photo: Meridith Fano Andy Partridge clutches Dennis Fano guitar:
‘I was stunned. It was beautiful. . .’
Fingers Working Overtime:

With the departure of Dave Gregory XTC have lost a considerable arsenal of vintage sounds, including Andy Partridge's favourite amp, a Fender Super Reverb. But they get by - and a mad XTC fan and guitar-builder in New York has helped them out in the best way possible. . . 

Partridge still owns and plays his venerable '75 Ibanez Artist (the newly-released song My Brown Guitar is not, sadly, a tribute to this long-suffering instrument but a paean to the Partridge todger). His main acoustic is an early '70s Martin D-35, his only bass a Kay-badged Woolworth's model (‘it's plywood . . . sounds like a tuba’).

Strangely, his most-played guitar of recent years is a cheap 3/4 sized Romanian classical belonging to his daughter Holly, a guitar which led directly to his latest acquisition - see the picture above.

‘A musician friend, David Yazbeck [sic], was visiting Matt Umanov's guitar shop in Manhattan and noticed one of the guitar repairers there had an XTC tattoo,’ explains Partridge. ‘David mentioned he knew us, and the guy fell on the floor saying he'd always wanted to make a guitar for us. So I got a phone call from this chap, whose name turned out to be Dennis Fano, and he offered to make me a guitar, and I tentatively said, “Well. . . um. . . okay, then,” and when he asked what kind of guitar I wanted I ended up talking about this cheap classical that I'd been playing.

‘To be honest, I wasn't expecting much of it - you know, maybe a cigar box with some rubber bands on it - but it turns out that Dennis is a fantastic guitar builder. This incredible electric guitar arrived with the same body proportions as the classical and all the controls on little wheels around the edge to keep the looks clean. I was stunned. It was just beautiful. He's making me another one, too, although I tried to refuse - they're worth a grand and a half, easily - and this one'll be based on his standard model, the Satellite, in glorious Las Vegas-style white, which is the colour guitar I've always wanted.’

‘Dennis made me a bass, too,’ chips in Moulding. ‘I haven't quite got used to it yet, but it's beautiful and it's on some of the new album. It's based roughly around my favourite bass of the moment, a 1969 semi-acoustic Vox Apollo which was a present from T-Bone Burnett. It was named Apollo for the moon landings, I believe, and it's especially nice between the 5th fret and the octave. I'm very enamoured of it. . . it has a lovely roundness and richness. I also used the old Epiphone Newport - it's got a damper at the bridge that makes it sound like an old upright bass. That's the one I used on The Man Who Murdered Love and We're All Light.’

Moulding's amplifier is a 100W Gallien Krueger combo which Partridge has dubbed the ‘GK Chesterton’ (‘It looks like a chest and it says “GK” on the front,’ he explains, plausibly), while the Moulding demos are pieced together with a Squier Tele and a Takamine electro-acoustic.

Our thanks to Dennis Fano. Check out

Wasp Star find Andy Partridge holding his end up as one of this country's most original and underrated guitarists, by turns unnervingly precise and wildly off-the-wall, from strutty, staccato knee-level rock riffs to fuzzed-out hooks and chiming arpeggios, chunky rhythm parts and compelling solos (the one on Church Of Women sounds like Larry Carlton's mad axe-wielding cousin). It's also crammed with a brilliant array of distortion sounds. The key? A wee device you can buy yourself for a few hundred quid: the Line 6 Pod. Partridge can't splutter highly enough about the little red kidney-shaped sound-tweaker.

Everything on the album went through the Pod,’ he explains. ‘I'm not joking. Vocals, bass, drums, keyboards, percussion. Distortion is the absolute key to making great records. Listen to your fave Tamla records: fuzzy drums, distorted vocals, fuzzy bass, and the whole thing's fuzzed up and compressed to buggery on top of that. Back in the days when everyone went through amps in the studio it happened naturally. Now everything's DI'd and super-clean and people wonder why things don't have any life to them.

‘Discovering the Pod solved my amp dilemma. Before I used to borrow Dave's Fender amp and use my Ibanez Artist and a Korg compressor and that sort of screaming result was basically my guitar sound. Now we've got all these subtleties of distortion, and it's really potent.

‘The other key sound on this album was the way we recorded a lot of electric guitars: we positioned a microphone about an inch from the body to pick up all those super-clean acoustic highs that you'll never get through a pickup, and mixed that with the regular electric sound which was usually the Pod on some really distorted setting.’

‘It's like a Kinks guitars sound,’ ventures Moulding, ‘not electric, not acoustic, more steel-electric or fuzzed-out-acoustic. It's on In Another Life, We're All Light, Boarded Up, The Man Who Murdered Love. It's the real backbone sound. If you can find that backbone, you've got a song.’

‘The whole thing about Volume 2 is that it's working with a more selective palette than Volume 1,’ points out Partridge. ‘The first was wide-screen, in full colour, acoustic and orchestral: this one was intended to be more a play made for television in black and white.’

So are Messers Partridge and Moulding fully prepared for the all-engulfing wave of love that will surely follow this masterfully televisual musical release?

‘Engulfing love?’ hoots Partridge. ‘The only engulfing love we get is Japanese or American! We can't get arrested over here. We're only big amongst people who get their records for free.’

‘Journalists do like us, it's true,’ considers Moulding, ‘but I think they've logged on to cool bands like Blur saying they've been influenced by us and praising us to the skies. They've never been sure as to whether they really like us or not. Ours has always been the three and a half-star review. With a sarcastic line to balance it out.’

Is XTC's old ‘too clever’ tag the underlying problem?

‘That “clever” thing has dogged us from the very beginning and it's rubbish,’ opines Partridge firmly. ‘We're council-house chaps. We left school with no pieces of paper whatsoever. Our intelligence is something we've garnered over the years and we won't play dumb, not for anyone. We just do the best we can. That's our ethic.’

‘I think perhaps some people don't really know how to take bands that have a lightness of touch about them,’ offers Moulding. ‘We make very light music. It doesn't take itself too seriously. We're not like Radiohead or other bands that critics love so much because they're so into their “art”. We're a little more breezy about the whole business.’

‘This thing about fake seriousness really bugs me,’ agrees Partridge. ‘Lots of bands at the moment only dabble in goatee-bearded “serious” music 'cos they imagine people will take it as art. What they're doing is denying the thousand other thoughts they have every day, like “Aren't those tits fabulous?” or “I wonder where I can get my shoes mended?”

‘I do understand it, because when I was 18 years old I was just the same. Nobody took me seriously, so I washed myself in serious books, serious records: that was my camouflage. But what I really liked were fun things like comics and stupidness. You're less honest with yourself when you're younger, because you don't know yourself. But people that make a career out of being less honest than they could be - aargh!

Colin Moulding's basses

Moulding's Wasp Star basses: Dennis Fano custom, Epiphone Newport with cool plonky string damper, and super-hip '69 Vox Apollo, a prezzie from T-Bone Burnett

‘I'm not asking for total honesty,’ he continues, warming to his theme, ‘because human beings can't be completely honest - if we were, civilisation would break down. Instead of saying “Good morning!” we'd all be swearing and telling each other where to get off. We've basically all agreed to lie to each other. . . it makes day-to-day living rather easier. But what I want artistically from someone is contact with that person's soul, a real musical honesty. XTC have always tried to be honest, even when people thought we were just smartass annoying little artpunks.’

And Wasp Star is, indeed, honest - sometimes brutally so. Partridge's Wounded Horse (on the subject of unfaithfulness) will make you suck your teeth; Playground (‘marked by the masters and bruised by the bullies’) comes arrow-straight from childhood. Balancing these are Moulding's own sturdy contributions. Boarded Up mourns the demolition of most that made Swindon life bearable, while the married-life love song In Another Life (‘I'll take your mood swings if you'll take my hobbies’) darn near steals the whole show.

‘I always think that writing from the personal angle makes most sense,’ Moulding points out. ‘It's the small things that matter. You may want to write about the world and war and all that, but does it really make contact with people? I don't think it does.’

‘You do get more into writing from personal experience - more up yourself, if you like,’ adds Partridge. ‘That side gets more important and you get more selfish, more particular about what you want and how you're digging this stuff out of yourself. I was pushed around at school, hence Playground, and now I advise my own son to smack any bullies right in the teeth as fast and hard as he can - which is the exact opposite of what my parents told me. Stupidly Happy is about a feeling that everyone knows, that initial idiot trance state of falling in love. There's nothing on the album that hasn't been gone through. Funnily enough, I used to write about what I thought would happen - and now it's more things I've done.’

If there's one bone that XTC lovers refuse to surrender, it's the subject of whether their beloved combo will ever play live again. The occasional promo jaunt and radio appearance aside, the band haven't trod the boards since 1982, the year when Partridge's aversion to stage appearances reached breaking point. XTC have flourished for 18 years as an in-studio outfit and spent only five years actually gigging, so it's a question the duo find somewhat perplexing.

‘I met a German guy last week who was on about it,’ recounts Partridge. ‘I said, why do you want to see us live, then? And he said (very decent German accent) “Well, I and my friends will get very drunk and you are playing the soundtrack to this!” And I thought, hang on, we don't want to be the soundtrack to your piss-up! It's not of interest, to be honest!’

‘We're council-house chaps. Our intelligence is something we've garnered over the years and we won't play dumb, not for anyone’ Andy Partridge

‘Even after all these years, my mum still thinks we go on tour,’ recounts Moulding wryly. ‘I say, I'm off to America, mum. “Oh, are you? Off on tour?” No, mum, we don't actually do that these days. . .’

‘At that age, they think if you haven't got any bookings over Christmas, you've fucked it,’ cackles Partridge. ‘My dad still says “You got any shows over the New Year? No? You want to get hold of the MU man, he'll fix you up. . . you'll get cash in hand, sandwiches. . .” If you ain't got bookings, you've had it. Haha! But the thing is, gigs are all good fun when you're young. Bands are like gangs. You've got guitars instead of knives and you're going to go round the world and drink it dry and shag the girls and deafen their dads. Then you grow up a bit and go, hang on. . . I don't want to be in a gang anymore.’

‘Instead, we became fascinated by records and finding out all the secrets of how that magic gets into your ears,’ explains Moulding.

‘When I heard Strawberry Fields as a kid I could not work out how they got those sounds,’ agrees Partridge. ‘Now I know it was a Mellotron on the flute setting, backwards cymbals, sped-up brass, cellos, all that. As a kid I went, how can those noises exist? I love it!

‘But it's like an apprenticeship, making records. If you're going to do it, you need a long time to find out how to do it. It's an alchemy, this business. It's not real, just like making a film is not real. There are people who still imagine that a group of actors play a scene, then they switch the cameras off and go and do the next scene. That's not how it happens. You make films by gluing bits together that are just right. They have to support the other pieces, they have to lead you forwards, the scenes have to be correctly lit. Records are the same - I'm sure some folk think you go into a studio with a three-pin plug dangling from your guitar, plug it into the wall and out comes our record. . .’

‘People think the process is fake, and in a way it is,’ points out Moulding, ‘but what you're trying to do it make someone feel something. You're creating something that'll touch that tender spot. And that's very real.’

How true. And how good to find the entirely unique XTC in a better position than at any other time in their 25 year history: wondrous hard disk recorder bought and paid for, bonkers and thus entirely suitable new guitars in hand, personnel trimmed but stabilised, songwriting ready to flourish again (Andy Partridge is threatening ‘something really crass. . . I still fancy doing an even more simplistic bubblegum thing. Or maybe some ambient operatic psychobilly’). Watch that garden shed.

Rick Batey

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[Thanks to Trevor Dyer]